Tonight marks the last day of the non-conference portion of the season as Tuesday will kick off conference play with Purdue traveling to Wisconsin and Iowa hosting Michigan State. While tomorrow's games should be an exciting double header on BTN, tonight we get...well we get Big Ten basketball. In the only game tonight, Rutgers will host UMass Lowell on BTN at 7 pm.
Game of the Night: UMass Lowell at Rutgers (7 PM ET | BTN)
When I refer to this as "game of the night," it should be mentioned that the game earns that honor by default. In all honesty, this game could have simply probably been labeled as 'the rest' and I doubt there'd be many complaints. I don't want to rag on Rutgers, because Eddie Jordan and company are trying to turn this thing around, but the Scarlet Knights have gotten off to an even worse start this season and hosting a mid-major from the America East Conference with a KenPom rating outside of the top 300 does little to inspire confidence.
Even more problematic is it's hard to dismiss this game as a gimme, even if it is possibly the last game Rutgers will play this season as the favorite. The question is what River Hawks program will we see, the one that got blown out by Northwestern and struggled with Sacred Heart (who the Wildcats just blown out), or will we see the team that upset Boston College and only fell to Connecticut by nine points in Hartford. Of course the same can be said for a Rutgers team that lost to St. Johns, Seton Hall by 29, George Washington by 34 and just came off of a close win over Fairleigh Dickinson. Any hope that Rutgers would start to turn things around in 2015-16 has gone out the window as Eddie Jordan has had to do everything in his power just to avoid embarrassing upsets over bad mid-major cupcakes.
One thing Rutgers will have to deal with is a balanced attack from UMass Lowell. The program's leading scorer, Jahad Thomas, only averages 11.5 points per game, but the team has seven different players that average between 7.5 and 11.5 points per game. The balanced approach means the River Hawks don't have a specific player to take control of the offense, but it also means Rutgers can't simply focus on one or two key players. The previously mentioned Thomas does do a lot of work for the River Hawks, though, also leading the team in rebounds (7.2) and assists (3.5) per game. While statistically they don't really have any specific area that they stand out in, UMass Lowell is 69th in the nation in three point percentage (37.6%), though they also commits about 15 turnovers per game.
As bad as Rutgers has been at times these first two months, they can not afford a loss here. There opponent tonight is a recent addition to Division I basketball, still currently in the midst of a reclassification period from Division II (they won't be eligible for their conference tournament or NCAA Tournament until 2017-18). A loss here would be a major blow to any morale that exists within the program and with eight of their first nine Big Ten games coming against Indiana, Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State, Purdue, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State (five of which on the road), things could be straight up dismal come February.
Adding fuel to the fire, the team has still been without Deshawn Freeman, while also dealing with injuries to Shaquille Doorson and Ibrahima Diallo. The team will likely need plenty from guys like Corey Sanders, who is coming off of a 21 point performance last time out. The Scarlet Knights are not only young, but the roster is thin on depth and needs to avoid a demoralizing blow to close out their non-conference run as things will only get even more difficult heading forward in 2016.